2023 Policy Initiative - Classroom Air Quality

Breathing Easy in our Schools - Improving Air Quality in NSW Classrooms

We all have the right to breathe clean air. But right now students and teachers in NSW are teaching and learning in classrooms with dangerously poor air quality. 

The amount of carbon dioxide (CO₂) in NSW primary and secondary school classrooms has been found to far exceed the maximum acceptable standard on a regular basis. Airborne particles from traffic exhaust, bushfire smoke and thunderstorm asthma events also contribute to unacceptable air quality in our schools.

We know that children under 15 are particularly vulnerable to poor air quality, and that pollutant exposure during developmental stages may produce lifelong issues such as asthma, respiratory infections and upper and lower airways disorders. Elevated CO₂ concentrations can cause headache, drowsiness and lethargy. Poor ventilation is also holding us back in our fight against the spread of COVID-19.

By improving the air in our classrooms, we will not only improve our children’s health, we will also improve overall student performance and staff productivity.

Students spend at least 25 hours in classrooms every week. That’s in excess of 1,075 hours indoors, in school buildings, every year. Our teachers and students deserve to work and learn in a space that is productive, clean and safe.

THE GREENS WILL: 

  • Require High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) grade air purifiers for all NSW primary and secondary school classrooms and other shared spaces within schools
  • Improve ventilation in NSW classrooms by beginning the rollout of hybrid ventilation systems where appropriate

AIR QUALITY IN NSW CLASSROOMS

NSW primary and secondary school classrooms routinely exceed maximum acceptable air quality standards. The Greens are committed to ensuring every child learns, and every teacher works, in a space that is safe and optimised for their achievement.

People breathe out carbon dioxide (CO₂). This means the amount of CO₂ in a room compared to outside air gives a good guide to the room’s level of ventilation. CO₂ in outside air is about 400 parts per million (ppm) and Australia’s National Construction Code specifies CO₂ concentration levels of less than 850 ppm, averaged over eight hours, for acceptable air quality.

But studies have shown NSW classrooms routinely exceed that figure, with average CO₂ concentrations during autumn ranging from 442 ppm to 1,510 ppm, and 718 ppm to 2,114 pp in winter. Maximum CO₂ concentrations exceeded 2,900 ppm, more than 300% the acceptable level.

Proper ventilation of classrooms is critical in flushing out high levels of CO₂ concentration. Ventilation can be as simple as opening windows, to allow the cycle of fresh air in and classroom air out. There are already protocols in place to encourage this practice by teachers, and they should be encouraged as much as possible.

But what happens when the outside air isn’t fresh, but is rather filled with other pollutants, like car exhaust, building materials, bushfire smoke, smog or high pollen counts? Windows remain closed and classroom air gets trapped, and even then pollutants manage to seep in and are inhaled by students and staff. Solvents from white board markers and particulates such as dust also contribute to classroom air pollution. Airborne viruses can also travel from the exhalation of pupils or staff into the air, and if not properly ventilated can remain trapped and present a contamination and transmission risk.

Most air-conditioning systems, if a classroom is lucky enough to have one, don’t provide ventilation either, particularly split systems which recycle the same air around the school.

Pollution from roads continues to be found to be highly harmful to our health, with tailpipe emissions potentially responsible for 10 times more deaths than fatal road accidents, and increasing awareness of the dangers of car tyre pollution. This risk is intensified in schools situated near busy roads and in urban areas if we allow pollutant exposures to linger without adequate filtration.

With reports of a dangerous bushfire season approaching, the likelihood of increased bushfire smoke and particulate matter in the air is increased. This exacerbates risk of asthma attacks and other harmful health outcomes. 

Schools can and should provide a safe and healthy space for students and teachers. There is an increased urgency for increased air quality precautions to be put in place.

EFFECTS OF POOR AIR QUALITY 

Poor classroom air doesn’t only affect health outcomes, it also has other social and economic consequences such as student performance and staff productivity. The Greens believe our teachers and students deserve to work and learn in a space that is productive, clean and safe.

Children are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of poor air quality. Exposure to pollutants during developmental stages can produce lifelong issues such as asthma,  respiratory infections and upper and lower airways disorders. Asthma prevalence in children is above the statewide average, and higher than any other individual age group. Because of the high proportion of time spent by young people in classrooms and shared school spaces, the NSW Government has a clear responsibility to ensure they are providing a clean and safe learning environment.

Poor air quality doesn’t just have harmful immediate health impacts, it also reduces learning capacity through concentration loss, tiredness and fatigue.

Studies have shown that classrooms with poor air quality and thermal comfort can negatively impact academic performance by as much as 30%.

Poor air quality also contributes to student absenteeism because of health issues, or as a preventative measure taken by parents who may decide, and have the means to do so, to keep a student at home where they may have more effective air filtration options available. 

INSTALLING ADEQUATE AIR FILTRATION DEVICES

Installing adequate air filtration devices in classrooms is an immediately actionable, low-cost action that will deliver improved health outcomes and help students achieve their academic potential. The Greens will require High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) grade air purifiers for all NSW primary and secondary school classrooms and other shared spaces within schools.

Modeling conducted by UNSW academics has shown that it would only cost approximately $50 million to provide all NSW school classrooms with air purifiers with HEPA filters.

These calculations assume each NSW primary and secondary school student, of which there are approximately 706,000 and 534,000 respectively, are grouped in classes of 25 and 20 pupils respectively.

Each of these classrooms would require an air purifier designed to work in a standard classroom of approximately 60 square metres. The modeling also allowed for each of the 3,100 schools in NSW to have six extra units to include shared spaces such as the library or resource room, staff room and administration area.

Approximately 73,500 units would be needed in NSW. A bulk-buy discount of 30% was applied on a currently available, high-quality HEPA air purifier retailing for $1,000 to arrive at the $50m estimate.

Installation of the units can be carried out in minutes, and one of the only concerns is the need to ensure proper PPE when changing the filter.

Unfortunately, upgrading existing aircon systems in schools by incorporating higher-grade HEPA filters is slow, expensive and not always technically possible.

In combination with other risk-reduction strategies, air purifiers are a quick and affordable way to improve air quality in our schools, while helping to reduce the risk of COVID spread.

THE GREENS WILL: 

  • Require High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) grade air purifiers for all NSW primary and secondary school classrooms and other shared spaces within schools
  • Improve ventilation in NSW classrooms by beginning the rollout of hybrid ventilation systems where appropriate

References:

FIND ALL OUR POLICIES:  GREENS.ORG.AU/NSW/PLATFORM

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